Wladimir Klitschko, who owns the heavyweight division like an oversized infant does a playpen full of toddlers, defends his four titles against Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev this Saturday in Hamburg. Pulev (20-0) is an improvement over Klitschko’s last opponent, Alex Leipai, who the Ukrainian (62-3) stopped in the fifth round of a woefully easy fight this past April. The Bulgarian has an extensive amateur background and is big enough to escape from Wlad’s clinching, but this doesn’t mean he’s a threat. While a competent fighter, Pulev is just the latest heavyweight who will try, and likely fail, to upend Klitschko’s tedious rule.
Klitschko, who is called “Dr. Steelhammer” by people eager to conjure imagery of sinister doctors spawning monsters in Carpathian laboratories, hasn’t lost a fight in ten years. That was against Lamon Brewster, whose fifth round onslaught left the giant heavyweight unresponsive. Being made to look pathetic shouldn’t happen to a top big man, but it was the second time in four fights Wladimir had been stopped. One year earlier he was terminated in the second round by Corrie Sanders, whose fearsome, come-forward aggression victimized Wladimir’s chin. Five years before he was knocked out by journeyman Ross Purrity, in Kiev no less. Before he put together one of the longest string of title defenses in heavyweight history, Klitschko’s chin appeared weaker than the political bonds now holding his home country together.
These failures, combined with his uninspiring style, questionable opposition, and preference for fighting in Europe, have made Wladimir Klitschko an athlete of little cultural import here in North America. Beyond mere apathy towards his career, there sometimes seems to be a genuine disdain for a man who, by all accounts, seems like a solid chap. It stems, I think, from the belief that Wladimir isn’t tough or daring enough to be a true heavyweight champion, that while he’s faced mostly bad competition he engages with these also-rans tepidly. Heavyweights are supposed to fight, not fight in a way that conceals their fragility.
A European fighter’s popularity in North America should not define his career as a success or failure, but boxing fans here are starved for a heavyweight to get behind and Wladimir Klitschko hasn’t been that man. He fights frequently but unspectacularly. “Steelhammer’s” last notable bout, against Alexander Povetkin last year in Moscow, was a wretched scrap in which he used his superior size to bully the shorter man over twelve rounds, pushing and holding and hanging on, at times draping himself overtop of Povetkin like a giant squid. Prior to the Povetkin bout, his previous significant fight was against glorified cruiserweight David Haye. That was supposed to be the division’s biggest event in years, but it was awful and devoid of action.
Part of Klitschko’s problem is that he’s too talented. Unlike so many of the American heavyweights who came to boxing after an athletic career in another sport failed, Wladimir has been schooled in fighting since childhood. Unlike, for example, Seth Mitchell, his skills are nuanced enough to steer him through those difficult situations that exploit a fighter’s inexperience. Klitschko has terrific footwork, owns perhaps the sport’s best jab, and makes frequent use of a battering-ram right hand that’s retired fifty-two opponents inside of the distance. He’s made mistakes in the ring, which his three knockout losses testify to, but Wladimir’s learned from his errors and has become—by far—the most complete fighter in his division and certainly the best heavyweight since Lennox Lewis. But, while this continuum of improvement is impressive, the proletariat wants change.
Can Kubrat Pulev foment a heavyweight revolution? Nearly as tall and a touch heavier than Wlad, he is better equipped than any of the champion’s recent foes to fight through Klitschko’s holding and clinching. Pulev believes the secret to the fight will be good footwork, which will allow him to alternate distances and remain outside of Klitschko’s lethal jab-power right combination. He may be fleet of foot, but can Pulev hurt Klitschko if he does get through? The Bulgarian is not a heavy puncher, and so he must rely on volume and precision to inflict damage, which will be difficult against a superior craftsman who prefers to let the fight come to him.
But the fact we have a credible challenger this time makes Klitschko vs Pulev worth watching, even for the most jaded boxing fan. Ideally, Pulev will make the champion uncomfortable and push back against the Ukrainian’s overwhelming physical mass. Arguably, he is the most complete boxer Klitschko has fought in years, which isn’t saying much since Wladimir’s list of recent opponents features names of the washed up and weak. But, if Pulev can land some scoring shots and establish ring position, maybe, for once, we’ll get a decent heavyweight fight.
If Klitschko wins, North American competition awaits. He will likely take on the winner of the Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder WBC title fight, whenever that takes place. In that case, he would be in with a serious puncher, and we would perhaps see whether his jaw has accumulated any sedimentation over time. A huge star in Germany, Klitschko hasn’t fought in North America since he unanimously decisioned Sultan Ibragimov at Madison Square Garden in 2008. I don’t remember that fight either. But a heavyweight unification contest in the new world would do wonders for making his name truly relevant again.
As we have noted here before, Klitschko has ruled over one of the most unattractive eras in heavyweight history. This is not his fault, nor should he feel obligated to deviate from the style that’ s made him so successful. Domination becomes boring though, when even in victory there are few dramatic moments. Kubrat Pulev may not be the iceberg that sinks the ocean liner, but it would be refreshing if Klitschko hit some rough water.
— Eliott McCormick